By Stefan Bondy for NY Daily News
Aisam-Ul-Haq Qureshi delivered his message loud and peacefully, and it had nothing to do with forehands or backhands, or even the doubles title he failed to win.
As a Muslim from Pakistan playing in the U.S. Open doubles final, he said New York needed his words the most, as post-9/11 counsel. So the 30-year-old grabbed the microphone and addressed the estimated 15,000 at Arthur Ashe Stadium – probably the biggest crowd to watch a Grand Slam doubles final – and made sure the moment wasn’t lost.
“I want to say something on behalf of all Pakistanis,” he said following Friday’s 7-6 (5), 7-6 (4) defeat to the Bryan brothers, Bob and Mike. “Every time I come here, there’s a wrong perception about the people of Pakistan.
“They are very friendly, very loving people. We want peace in this world as much as you guys.”
The crowd cheered. By now, such poignancy is expected from Qureshi and, to a lesser extent, his doubles partner, Rohan Bopanna of India. Together, they’ve formed the politically charged tandem known as the Indo-Pak Express, breaking down barriers with their kinship and jettisoning expectations with their recent play.
Their respective neighboring countries have warred with and terrorized each other since the 1940s, citing religion as their great chasm. But Qureshi and Bopanna, a Hindu, represent peace, both on and off the court. Indian and Pakistani fans filled pockets of Arthur Ashe Friday, arriving as early as two hours before the match. U.N. ambassadors from both countries sat side-by-side in the President’s Box – the second straight match they’ve attended together – cheering the same unexpected struggle their team brought to the greatest doubles team of all time, the Bryan brothers. The 16th-seeded Qureshi and Bopanna followed up their run to the Wimbledon quarterfinals with five wins in Flushing.
“They’ve proven that when Indians and Pakistanis get together we can raise fire,” Pakistan ambassador Abdullah Hussain Haroon said. “I think on a people-to-people basis, they’re setting an example that the politicians should follow.”
Prize money and rankings were never a motivating factor, Qureshi said, only good news for his flood-stricken countrymen and a platform to express his message of American misunderstanding. He also defended the decision to build a mosque near the World Trade Center site.
“For me, as a Muslim, that’s what makes America the greatest country in the world – freedom of religion, freedom of speech,” Qureshi said. “If the mosque is built, I think it’s a huge gesture to all the Muslim community out there in the world. I would really appreciate it.”
Pakistan, which borders Afghanistan, has long been considered a headquarters of Al Qaeda.
Qureshi said he’s been stopped at airport immigration “every time” in New York – three hours at a time – including after his latest flight for the Open. And on the eve of the ninth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, he wanted to defend his country’s masses.
“Since September 11, every time I come to the States or western countries I feel people have the wrong impression about Pakistan as a terrorist nation,” Qureshi said. “I just wanted to declare that we are very friendly, loving and caring people, and we want peace in this world as much as Americans and the rest of the world wants.
“There are extremists in every religion, but just because of them you cannot judge the whole country as a terrorist nation. I just wanted to get this message across as a Pakistani.”